Racine Hives

It had been too long since I last checked the hives in Racine, MN.  I had intended to check them when we were down to butcher chickens, a few weeks ago in August.  But, I forgot the varroa mite treatment in St. Paul.  Besides, the butchering, albeit much faster than prior butcherings, took a chunk of the day.  I did not want to consume more time, post-butchering, to check hives — and run the chance that I’d get stung and have a reaction; we had chickens to quarter and get into the freezer!

The drive, like the many, many times we have driven before, was uneventful.  Hastings, Cannon Falls, Zumbrota, Pine Island, Oronoco – the river-towns of southeastern Minnesota – their signs clip by as we head south.  It was somewhat early, and there was very light traffic.  When I notice the speed limit had dropped to 60 miles per hour, I know that we are at Rochester.   Past the Apache Mall; when the South Broadway Avenue exit sign can be seen, it’s time to change lanes to the right and take the exit.  The Rochester International Airport, followed by Stewartville.  The speed limit drops to 30 miles per hour within Stewartville, and picks up again upon exiting south of the city.  I always chuckle to myself as we exit Stewartville, there is a 30 mile per hour marker, and less than 75 feet past it, there is a 55 mile per hour marker.  I find the nearness of the two signs to be funny, I don’t know why.  A few minutes down highway 63, Racine can be found.

Melissa commented, as we were entering the turn lane for Main Street, that her friend in Racine, said the fatal accident the day before resulted the intersection being closed for much of the morning.  The heavy rain during the night had erased many of the signs of the accident from the road.  Tire marks and a bit of spray paint on the pavement could be seen but even with the temporal proximity to the accident being just the previous day, the intersection felt normal.  This was the second fatal accident at this intersection, this year.  A left turn onto Main Street; a left a few avenues down and then a right into the driveway of the farm.  Wingnut, one of the farm dogs, greets us.  Her face is covered in mud, but she’s happy to see us.  Mel and Buster, the two house bassets, soon can be heard barking at us through the kitchen door.

It rained off and on, on the drive down to the farm.  As we pulled into the farm, it was now on, again; it was raining.  Might as well take care of the business I needed to take care.  Melissa grabbed her things from the car; she needed to say hello to her horse, Victor, and then walk puppies from the kennel.  The puppies are not so puppy-ish anymore; they’re closer to being just very rubbery full sized creatures.

The other business to attended to was to return nuc boxes from the bees purchased in June from Cresco, Iowa.  I could keep the nucs for $20 each, or return them. It’s only a 45 minute drive from Racine to Cresco, and it’s the edge of the driftless area of Minnesota and Iowa – the scenery is pleasant with rolling hills, rivers and creeks. If your mental image of farm country is that of neatly divided squares of 160 acre pieces of land with road on all four side, this is not that. The roads are more a series of swooping curves and short straight-aways than a grid-like system. The drive is a familiar path – this is the fourth trip to Linda and Manley’s, twice to pickup bees in early summers and, now, twice to return empty nuc boxes in late summer and early fall. It was raining when I pulled into their driveway; house on the right, a neatly kept garden on the left, trees. The house was dark; no one appeared to be home. I pulled up to Manley’s pole building. It was raining hard. The nuc boxes are fairly light, being made of corrugated plastic, if the wind picked up, they would likely get scattered about. Next to the pole building, perpendicular and to the right, was a shed with a car parked in front it. The car and shed might work as a windbreak. I left the nucs tucked behind and to the left of the car, and near the shed’s door. The rain stopped just north of Linda and Manley’s; dark clouds and lightning could be seen further to the northeast. After lunch, I set to work on checking the hives. We are down to just two hives in Racine; we started with four hives several years ago, the count peaked at six, and with winter kill and uncertain future plans for the continuation of hives on the hive, we arrived at two. One of the two hives has been mediocre at producing honey but has been stellar at overwintering, having successfully made it thru four winters. The first hive to tackle is one that contains bees purchased from Linda and Manley the previous year. Three honey boxes sit atop two brood boxes. The bottom brood box appeared to have been knocked off the hive base — likely by a lawn mower. The half-inch gap between the bottom box and the base makes for a nice exit and entrance for the bees; it also might be wide enough for a field mouse to squeeze in. As I waited for the smoker’s wood chips to catch fire, I got my protective jacket on. Even though there are only two hives, the late-season smell of golden rod nectar being turned into honey drifted across the wind. It’s a sweet, musky scent. I have heard the smell described as being like a gym locker. Maybe without adequate ventilation, a locker might smell a musty, but the scent of golden rod nectar turning into honey is nothing that I kind of like; it means that fall is on its way. I pulled the outer cover off, and gave the inner cover’s center opening a few puffs from the smoker. A quick pry with the hive tool, and the inner cover came off. A heavier stream of bees came out of the bottom gap; a few puffs of the smoker seemed to do the trick; calming and confusing them. The top honey box came loose from the one below with a bit of hive tool prying. The box was loaded with honey – all ten frames. I set it on cross-ways on the upside-down outer cover on the ground. The second honey box had ten nice frames of honey; it was stuck something-fierce to the box below it. A bit of prying and minimal movement, and the box came loose. I set it on top of the other honey box I had just removed. The third honey box was similarly cemented to the top brood box with propolis. The top brood box looked great. No burr comb, and without tearing heavily into it, no queen cells. Anecdotally, strong bee numbers. More smoke was puffed across the top brood box before I pried it off and set it onto of the reverse-ordered honey boxes. With the weight of a 100 or so pounds of honey, and the top brood box off of the bottom box, I was able to square it up on the hive bottom. The bees seemed to be getting a bit hot. Guard bees repeatedly flew into my face screen. More smoke across the top of the brood box on the hive base. I fiddled around getting the package of Hopguard II open. This particular product works best at the end of the season, after most of the larvae have emerged. Early September is likely a bit early, but I figured I would apply a treatment of it anyway. Four strips of Hopguard II to each brood box. The first strip went well. As I pulled the second strip out, the box resting on the hive base turned into a bee-volcano. Bees flew up and got tangled in the cuff of my jacket; I began to get stung through the cloth. Many puffs of the smoker, and I remaining calm, and I had four strips of Hopguard II in the one box. I moved a bit quicker with more purpose. I lifted the brood box that I had moved off, back onto the one that I had straightened on the base. More smoke. I rotated puffs of smoke and inserting Hopguard II strips. More smoke. Lots of smoke to clear out of the layer of bees so I could return the honey boxes atop. My wrist felt like it was on fire. With the hive of Manley’s Spicy Russian Bees reassembled, I moved onto the other hive. This turned out to be almost a non-event for the bees in this hive. A little smoke, moved the honey boxes and the top brood box away, inserted the Hopguard II strips, and reassembled the hive without incident. If you are curious about the efficacy of Hopguard II, there was an interesting study done that more or less concluded what I have anecdotally observed. The study is here. Closing Down The Hives We are not going to be getting much honey this year. I mentioned this already in a previous post. No honey from the southern hives, actually. None. This is not a huge infliction monetarily on its own. Honey from these hives never sold as well as the honey from our hives in St. Paul. We still have a pile of the stuff from 2014. People seemed like the more complicated floral taste of the St. Paul honey. Not getting any honey from these southern hives is a monetary hit, none the less. Particularly, when you factor in that we should have had at least six hives in southern Minnesota. Instead, we ended the season with just two. That’s$80 to \$120 per hive.  Gone.

The one hive, in the photo with tar paper wrapped around it, is a bit of a rare bunch of bees.  Actually, it’s probably just a strong queen.  This was the queen’s third season.

There probably short list of whys on the loss of four hives – the crappy Georgian/Wisconsin bees, the hotter-than-accustom-to Russian/Iowan bees, or just mites.  The list could go on.

It is actually some what late to close down the hives – the first day of November.  The hives are usually all closed down by this time of year.  It has been an odd fall, though.  Indian summer, no less.  We had late summer temperatures much of October.

Hives are closed down, now.  Wrapped in tarpaper, with an insulated moisture quilt on top.  The remaining hive of Russian bees (in the above photo, it is the hive with the smoker atop), although the bees did not produce any harvestable honey, all the available frames in the deep boxes was filled out with stock for winter.  If they overwinter successfully, I’m optimistic that they will produce a harvestable quantity of honey for us.

Hive Checking

Over the weekend, I decided to check the hives we have the back of our property.  I also planned to put escape boards on; there is honey to be harvested.

It had been a while since I had last opened the hives for inspection.  I had last been to the hives a few weeks prior to fix one of the supports under the pallet that two hives reside upon.  Moles had borrowed under the chunk of concrete supporting the back, right corner.  The tallest of the hives was resting against the chainlink fencing that surrounds the hive area.

It has been a fickle year for bees for us.  We mixed things up a bit this spring and got bees from a couple different suppliers.  One in Wisconsin with bees via Georgia.  The other, from northeastern Iowa where they were raised.

I say fickle because we lost, almost immediately, two packages of bees that we picked up in Wisconsin.  We had had plans to hive them in southern Minnesota, and had put the packages of bees into nuc boxes.  By the next morning, all the bees in each nuc were dead.  We subsequently had two hives swarm.

The Iowan bees faired well enough.  There is one quirk with them, though — two of the four hives (two in St. Paul, and two in Racine, MN) failed to move up into the honey boxes.  In the above picture, there are bees in the two bottom deep boxes, but there is very little activity in the top box.  No honey packing in the top box.  The two deeps on that hive are full of bees and honey; it’s like they just did not want to move up one more layer.

The tall hive in the photo – on the right – is loaded with bees and honey.  Three deep boxes for brood and three boxes of honey.  This appears to be the only hive we will get honey from this season.  Not much honey on the other hives.  No honey in the boxes on the other hive; the fourth hive swarmed or collapsed.  No trace of bees in that hive.

The one thing that I was very annoyed with was finding small hive beetles.  I have never had them in our hives before.  I suspect the Wisconsin bees carried the beetles.  I have no evidence to prove this, but those bees were simply unimpressive.

I think next year, we will go back to our previous supplier of bees — even though they will be priced much higher than the Wisconsin bees, they have been much more reliable in previous years.

Hives in Saint Paul

Here in Saint Paul, we entered winter with three hives buzzing with activity.  Our fourth hive was empty; the bees had likely swarmed earlier in the fall.  No honey, no pollen, just wax crumbs in the bottom of the hive; they packed up all their belongings and left.

When we checked the hives in December, during a stretch of warmer days, we were surprised to find all the hives empty.  Two of the three seemed to have suffered the same as the previous empty hive.  With the exception of a few dead bees, wax pieces and pollen on the bottom board, the hives were empty.  There was still some honey and pollen, but the bees were gone.  The fourth hive had a very small cluster of dead bees in the middle.  A small amount of honey and pollen remained.  My guess, and it is just a guess, as a group, they just could not maintain an adequate temperature.  Maybe there were not enough bees (perhaps varroa mites spiked in this hive and weakened the population).

For the last few winters, we have wrapped the hives in tar paper to act as a barrier to the wind as well as allowing for the ever-so-small warming effect from the sun.  We had mixed success over the years. The use of tar paper for this winter was no different.  However, with the hives being without bees early in the winter, meant that we would likely have to deal with mice in the hives.

Even with the hive entrances blocked off with scraps of tar paper or duct tape, mice can still get into a hive.  The hives are ideal mouse-hangouts; slightly warm from the tar paper wrap and food in the form of honey and wax (it is a lipid, after all).

Over this past weekend, I decided to do some spring cleaning and rearranging of the hives.  The hives could be completely torn down, wax scraped if need be, debris removed, components inspected – all without needing to wear a beesuit or be concerned with getting stung.  The bee-free situation of the hives would also allow for something that I have been wanting to do for a while: better level the hives and physically arrange them differently.

It is difficult to tell from the photo (above) that the hives are actually located on the side of a hill.  It is only a slight angle – less 15° – but the layout still has problems.  Originally, I had dug into the hill to better level the hives, but with heavy rain last spring, the general cycle of forest-dross-buildup, as well as burrowing rodents below – the hive bases were buried on the uphill side and beginning to be excavated on the downhill side.  We had shimmed up the downhill sides with sticks and left over cedar shakes (from siding the coop); it looked tacky and felt flimsy – like the hives would tip over if top-loaded with honey frames.

The first hive we opened was empty.  No signs of mice; just the wax bits and a few dead bees on the bottom board.  The second hive, however, was a bit different.  The piece of tar paper that had been blocking off the top-box’s entrance hole had a hole through it.  In pulling off the tar paper wrap, bits and pieces of what looked like shredded paper fell out.  The smell of mouse-living hit my nose.

Lifting off the top deep box, I nearly fell over as a mouse jumped toward me – from the box to the ground.  It made some mouse-noises as it ran between my legs and off into a nearby brush pile; I assume it was cursing me out in its native tongue.

The middle deep box was more or less completely packed with shredded paper and stunk of urea.  I am not sure where the mouse or mice were getting the paper to shred; maybe our near by “open air” garage (the building had red squirrels living it throughout the winter).  Frame by frame, I shook the paper and mouse-crap into a pail.

The mice had also eaten through several frames of honey and comb.  Two frames had bottom bars that had been chewed through and two more frames of nectar that had not been turned into honey had mold on them.  Theses frames went into the fire we had started in the fire pit a bit earlier in the day.

Only one of the hives had a mouse nest in it; all of the hives, however, had nests under their bases.  More shredded paper, leaves and twine were all bundled up.  Mice would jump out from under the hives as I picked up and moved the bottom boards.  I would let out an explicative as if having a mouse jump at me was something unexpected at this point.  That night, all I dreamt about were mice in the house or in our bed.  Any creek or cracking sound in the house would send me fly up out of my sleep – It must be a mouse!

The next morning, with the hives torn down, and moved out of the bee yard, we set to work clearing out the buckthorn seedlings and other bits of flora that taken up residence over the last few years within the confines of the bee yard fencing.  A quick run-around with the push-lawnmower and a quick raking made short work of the task.  Maybe a sprinkling of rape seeds or clover in the areas where we will not be walking is in order.

Our neighbors to the south of us had given us a heap of wood pallets earlier in the fall; pallets make nice platforms for hives.  Previous owners of our house, at one time, had left a piles of short concrete pillars (14″ long, 6″ in diameter) in the woods and near the “open air” garage; we have no idea what pillars were for, but we have used else where around the property – the fire pit, for example, is ringed with them.   More pillars, deeper in the woods, would make for great pallet supports in the bee yard.

Having hauled half a dozen or so of these pillars into the bee yard, I set to work with a shovel, digging in to get the right depth to bury the concrete supports.

With the pallets in place, reassembling the hives was the easy part.  They stacked together quickly.  As I put them back to together, I noticed that we had a few winged visitors.  Maybe a dozen bees – or simply the same few – land here or there on droplets of honey on the tops of frames.  The question of whether these were actually our bees – a few of the bees that had packed up and left in the fall – popped into my head.   Not shown in the photo (below), all the larger hive entrance holes had been covered with duct tape; we are hoping it keeps the mice out until we get bees installed.

We have had bees on order for while – from one supplier in Iowa of Russian bees, we have had our name on their order list since February of last year.  We also put an order in in January with a place near Baldwin, Wisconsin; those bees will be available for pick in mid-April.   We will also have to wash down the hive equipment prior to installing bees – I’ll want to make sure the urine from the mice is washed out; it will also give us a chance to jettison any frames that are showing signs of mold.  This will happen in early April.

Winter

With snow on the ground and the hives tucked in until late December when we will need to check food supplies and general wellbeing, it’s about time to get around to finishing the extraction of honey (e.g. removal of honey from comb).  We pulled about seventeen full and partially full honey boxes from the ten hives we had this season.  We have extracted about two-thirds of the honey from Racine, MN and have yet to get to the St. Paul honey. As far as hives, we are over-wintering seven of the ten hives we ran this season; three having failed in late fall – two in failures in Racine, and one in St. Paul.  There will likely be at least couple more failures to bring the mortality rate to the usual 50%.

Winter is usually harsh on hives in Minnesota (and elsewhere in the upper midwest).  And, over the last couple of days, it snowed a bit in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area as well as elsewhere in the state of Minnesota.  Here in Hibbing, we awoke to -10 F Thanksgiving morning.  Astronomical winter will not be here for another month or so, but, with a few inches of crusty white snow on the ground and temperatures now well below freezing (and zero here on the Iron Range), for many practical purposes, winter has arrived.

In the mean time, we plan.  We have been tossing around the idea of having four or so hives north of Hibbing and Chisholm, MN, on family-owned forested property.  Melissa also has family near Finlayson, MN who have the startings of a CSA-type farm.  They are interested in including honey with the vegetable and poultry shares that they will have available next year.  And, back in Racine, the farmer is letting us play with a half-acre for a large garden.  We plan to plant a large amount of buckwheat, monarda, and other bee-friendly-plants in addition to the regular staples of a vegetable garden.  Needless to say, we will be busy next season.

Summer Hives

About a week ago, we were in southern Minnesota – in Racine. This is our second year for having hives down there. After that photo was taken, I dawned my bee-suit and hopped onto the riding mower and cut the grass around the hives; the farm-hands won’t cut the grass near the hives.

Last year, we had four hives on the farm; only two over-wintered successfully.  Those are the two on the left-side of the photo (to my right).  It always amazes me that, as the honey-season progresses, each hive progresses (or regresses) differently.  The two successfully over-wintered hives were doing great in early May.  The one that I am leaning against in the photo continues to do quite well; three full honey boxes with the fourth added just prior to the photo being taken.  The hive on the far left is doing very well with the exception of the bees not occupying the upper two honey boxes.  They had half-filled out the bottom super (the two-colored box), but then, stopped.  There isn’t any signs of illness or weakness in the queen; they are just no longer moving up into the boxes.  The other hive that has done a 180° turn is the shortest one in the photo.  We hived the package of bees in that hive along with the other three new hives, but after checking it in early June, the bees were not expanding out of the bottom deep box.  Removing a second deep from atop, we left it with the hopes of not putting much effort into – thinking the queen was weak or had even died.  By the end of June, we added a honey box on top because the deep box was completely filled out with brood comb.

Back in St. Paul, at the house, our four hives are just chugging along.  Located at the back of our property, the bees of the hives quietly go about pollinating the neighborhood.  They are doing their duties quite well.  The hive that I have my arm on in the photo has three deep brood boxes as well as the four honey boxes.  It’s a strong hive.  All the hives are doing well.

At this point in the season, we are going to have a lot of honey this year.

July 4th Bees

I took a hike up to the bees at back our property here in St. Paul, and setup the camera.